“We think that the point is to pass the test or overcome the problem, but the truth is that things don’t really get solved. They come together and they fall apart. Then they come together again and fall apart again. It’s just like that. The healing comes from letting there be room for all of this to happen: room for grief, for relief, for misery, for joy.”
― Pema Chödrön
I’ve been sending this quotation around a lot the last couple of weeks and re-reading it over and over myself. In this post-covid-Trump-not-actually-post-either moment, I need reassurance that the profoundly unsettled feeling that I’m walking around with isn’t wrong. In fact, if you’re feeling settled, you’re probably in need of a good gut and fact check. The world is burning. Countries are crumbling. People are dying of a pandemic that we sort of pretended was over.
You know what I mean. It’s a time of deep uncertainty, layered on top of existential exhaustion and glaring division. How is an alert mind supposed to weather such a time? How is a body supposed to settle? How is a heart supposed to endure?
Yes, there are the daily tasks to tether me to the world—the sorting of the girls’ clothes that they are constantly outgrowing, the paying of the parking ticket, the eternal return of putting the dishes in the dishwasher and taking them out. And, indeed, as annoying as these things are, they do make me feel less out of control, less like I’m riding thrashing waves of bad news and more like I’m treading water.
I made a meal for a friend who has cancer yesterday and it was a deep, soothing pleasure—the cutting of the celery, the smell of the broth, the warmth of the iron skillet. A thing I could do. I stuck a poetry book and photographs of babies into the bag before I dropped it on the porch.
I need to get a mammogram. I need to get our passports renewed. I need to learn more about climate change. I’ve got a list of books I should read in my notes on my phone. But instead I keep reading memoirs and essays, poetry and novels.
I just can’t face it and I know that’s fragile bullshit, but I’m also too old too pretend I don’t need to titrate the awfulness. I’ve got a round-faced girl who, after a long silence, piped up from the backseat of the car on the way home from Target: “Momma, do you think people can do impossible things?”
“What made you think of that?” I asked.
“I don’t know.”
“Yes, I think people can do impossible things. I think we sometimes think things are impossible that are not actually impossible.”
I was thinking of moral courage—the Quakers who didn’t wear cotton because they didn’t want to be complicit with slavery, the people who forgive those that have killed their children (my body will never understand this). But also I was thinking of the opposite: I had no idea it was possible that we would be out of school and stuck in our homes for months on end because of a global pandemic. I had no idea it was possible for the sky to turn burnt orange in midmorning and for my kids to have to stay inside so their lungs wouldn’t fill with smoke. I had no idea it was possible that people would mutilate science and history so casually—deny our best hope for healing and ask teachers to lie to our children about who we have been.
There are some things I would have preferred stayed impossible, sweet girl. But I’m not going to say any of that now. Let us focus, instead, on the good things that are possible, but seem impossible. Let us focus on a friend whose body is so resilient even though it’s just been cut open; she texted me some of the beautiful language from the surgeon’s notes: “Attention was then turned towards the pelvis.” Let us focus on the way my 7-year-old saved her pan dulce from school breakfast for her little sister, handed it to her after school with gentle pride. Let us focus on the Afghani refugee girl who became a woman and now writes exquisite essays that give us insight, not pity but insight, into the lives shattering and scattering there. Let us focus on the daughters of Haiti who never lose hope in the inherent strength of a nation of rebels. Let us make “room for all of this to happen.”
In the end, we have no choice but to greet this moment, as uncertain and sad as it may be. The enduring comes in the cooking for one another, the little existential questions from the backseat, the teachers with their masks and their remarkable skill to walk backwards as they lead lines of children into ventilated classrooms. I’ll get on the waitlist for one of the books on climate change from the library. I’ll get mentally heartier soon. It will come together again. Then it will fall apart. Repeat forever.
Have you had enough of me? I certainly have. If not, here are some more book-related things to check out:
The New Yorker produced a beautiful little segment on the book.
This review by Liuan Huska, a Christian writer of color, is my favorite yet. She really nails it here:
“When we wake up to the profound injustices in our world, realizing our complicity in perpetuating them, we can keep doing what we’ve always done or we can change course. Martin writes in her final pages, ‘Stop looking away.’ Christians are faced with an even more profound imperative: follow a God who sent his son into the depths of human suffering. No excuses can justify our failure to embody this kind of love.”
You can watch Garrett and I gab here:
Thank you for all of your beautiful emails, Instagram photos, and comments. It’s really steadied me during these first few weeks of having Learning in Public out in the world, when I’ve also had to reinforce my website against trolls (ugh) and endure the typical racist, sexist emails that always follow this kind of public work. If you’re able, a review at Amazon and/or GoodReads will go a long way.